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How MDX tackled mental health during COVID-19 and will continue to prioritise student wellbeing

'I want to reassure all students starting with us in September that their safety and mental wellbeing are priority areas,' Professor Nic Beech, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University.

Middlesex University will continue to prioritise the mental health of its students in the coming year and is also committed to addressing the issue through major research and community projects.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have had a significant impact on mental health in the general population and shone a light on the subject like never before.

Since March last year, MDX academics and staff have launched and spearheaded a number of projects designed at tackling and improving mental health, including:

  • The University commissioned an online service called TogetherAll (formerly  Big White Wall) which provided round-the-clock support for staff and students to help manage their wellbeing during the COVID-19 crisis. Staff and students have anonymous access to the platform which is monitored by trained professionals and helps people with depression and anxiety.
  • A major new personal tutoring pilot project at Middlesex University took innovative steps to boost wellbeing among students and start conversations about mental health. MDX students being tutored through the pilot project began using tech-based exercises and tests in confidence, connection, positivity, focus, motivation and stress management on the mental fitness app Fika.
  • Nicky Lambert, an MDX Associate Professor in Mental Health, co-founded a mental health online television and podcast series which ran throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Mental Health TV (#mhTV) began in May last year to bring mental health nurses together and provide informative discussions through a diverse range of guests. The project has been nominated as a finalist in the Mental Health category of the RCNA awards
  • The University's Expansive Learning  curriculum module, which has won plaudits from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), now includes a module on green health and sustainability - looking at the importance of green and public spaces for mental wellbeing. The curriculum module, for all BSc Nursing students, has  included input from Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Europe and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare.
  • MDX has embedded self-care and mental health awareness in to the all-field nursing modules on communication and is supporting the work of NurseLifeline - a support telephone line for all healthcare workers including military, retirees and family members. It emerged that 21% of nurses surveyed during the first wave of the pandemic experienced moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression .
  • MDX Research Psychologist Dr Ruth Spence wrote her first children’s book to provide a practical mental health resource for children. The picture book, includes cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and follows Charlie, a happy girl until she makes friends with a black dog which is used to represent depression.
  • Think Ahead, which runs a pioneering post-graduate programme – The PGDIP Social Work - in partnership with Middlesex University, was awarded a £27 million cash boost. The mental health charity will use the funds to recruit and train 480 social workers over the next two to three years who will study at MDX and wish to practice in mental health settings.
  • Research by Mandeep K Dhami, an MDX Professor in Decision Psychology, highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health as it showed some people in lockdown felt ‘more hopeless’ than first time prisoners. The study compared the experience of 750 people in lockdown in the UK and California in April 2020 against the experience of 573 convicted criminals who were sent to prison for the first time in both regions before the global health crisis.
  • Research by leading suicide prevention expert and psychologist, MDX academic Associate Professor Lisa Marzano supported the Samaritans relaunch of the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign. In partnership with Network Rail, British Transport Police and the wider rail industry, the campaign aims to empower the public to act to prevent suicide on the railways and other settings by starting conversations with potentially vulnerable people.
  • Dr Erminia Colucci, an MDX Associate Professor in Visual and Cultural Psychology, working in partnership with the Centre for Public Mental Health at Gadjah Mada University (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) has helped launch guidelines for preventing suicide in Indonesia. The guidelines which include short courses focus on empowering everyone in the community with the tools to recognize suicide warning signs and respond so as to reduce the risk of acting on the suicidal thought.
  • The Mental Health Quick Polls project, set up by the Student Union and University's Student Engagement and Wellbeing teams, began asking students about their mental health on a monthly basis through a mobile phone app. The survey averaged 700 student responses across just a few months with students given immediate feedback on activities and support services which might help them based on their responses.
  • The Student Callers scheme launched at the beginning of the last academic year provided peer-to-peer support for students who were showing early signs of low engagement with online learning. Student callers reached out to more than 5,000 students offering support on technical issues and a listening ear to those struggling with socialising - this included info on wellbeing and mental health teams and follow up calls from ambassadors.

Emily McIntosh, a Director of Learning, Teaching and Student experience at MDX, gave advice on coping strategies in a Guardian article on how students can look after their mental wellbeing in the coming academic year.

She stressed that setbacks are inevitable but temporary and can happen to anyone.

“Life doesn’t always go straightforwardly, but there is a lot of learning in some of the setbacks,” she added.

Emily recommended students connect with course mates or become involved with clubs and societies.

Universities will have structured support including counselling or advice sessions which are “not just for those who are experiencing difficulties (but) they can often help prevent those difficulties in the first place”, Emily added.

She also advocates goal setting as long as you’re feeling robust and having a daily routine which can be good for mental health.

The focus on mental health will remain a priority for MDX over the next year and as part of its wider 10-year strategy.

Professor Nic Beech, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, said: “Going to University is exciting and a wonderful experience but can be stressful too.

“I want to reassure all students starting with us in September that their safety and mental wellbeing are priority areas for us.

“The last couple of years have been extremely challenging and we have invested in extra support to address students’ and staff mental health. We will continue to do so.

“As part of our 10-year strategy, improving mental and physical well-being in all parts of society is a crucial focus through innovative research and community projects.

“Never has the need to address and tackle mental health been more important than following the COVID pandemic.”

Find out more about courses in mental health at Middlesex University.

Photo by Kate Williams on Unsplash

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